Generation Spoiled? (Tips to avoid spoiling kids)

Sean and I had dinner with our close friends the other night.  We made an effort to talk about all things non-kid related as we enjoyed drinks and a leisurely meal but, naturally, we ended up talking about our kids.  Specifically, we discussed how different our own childhood experiences were, and what exactly it means to “spoil” a child.  Some of us grew up with fake Nike sneakers, powdered milk (just because), and hand-me-downs that never quite fit…our children wear Converse, drink delicious fresh milk, and have new clothes that fit (except Liam, who won’t part with his car shirts that are now a size too small, despite the new ones in the right size).  Are we spoiling them?

It’s a common fear among parents.  On the one hand, we want our kids to be healthy and happy.  Smiling faces and calm (or excited) demeanors are preferable to angry (or sad) ones.  On the other hand, we don’t want to stand accused of raising “spoiled brats”.  I have to say it:  I’ve never much cared for the word “brat”.  I’m not sure why, it just makes me cringe.  But there are books and articles everywhere right now referencing the “Generation S” (spoiled) and ways to avoid raising “brats”.

There are some who like to chalk up any unfavorable behavior to general “brattiness”, but the truth is that there is generally a reason for the behavior.  Yes, spoiled children exist in this world.  But 9 times out of 10 that temper tantrum, whining, or interrupting you hear at the supermarket or on the other end of the line is more likely the result of hunger, boredom, sleep deprivation, or other issues.

Everybody has a definition for spoiled behavior, but most of the time it includes behaviors such as excessive whining, interrupting frequently, a sense of entitlement, temper tantrums in response to the word “no”, and talking back to adults. The truth is that all kids whine, cry, have temper tantrums, and talk back at some point.  Spoiling comes in when these behaviors are seen more often than not on any given day. While one natural consequence of this behavior is that other people don’t like it and might not choose to make plans with spoiled individuals, the real danger comes in the future.  Spoiled children often grow up to become verbally aggressive adults who struggle to cope with difficult or frustrating situations.

The best reason not to spoil your kids is to help them learn to cope with disappointment and frustration.  *Hint: It’s not about the stuff; it’s about the behavior. Below are some tips to help you avoid spoiling your kids:

1. Teach manners: It sounds like a given.  For many parents, it is.  But with the hectic pace of life right now, teaching kids to say please and thank you and other basic manners can be easily forgotten.  Practice using “friendly words” around the house, both with parents and siblings.  Cue the kids often and reinforce use of good manners and helping one another.  And remember to model appropriate manners for your kids as much as possible. For more strategies on teaching manners, check out this post.

2. Set limits: Kids need limits.  They need to know what is or isn’t allowed.  How can they be expected to follow the rules if the limits haven’t been defined?  Set clear and simple limits in your home.  Post them on the kitchen wall.  Repeat them often.  When a rule is broken, repeat the rule back to your child before giving a consequence. It can be hard to say the same thing over and over.  Liam is so well versed in the rules at age 2 ½ that he regularly lists them off just because he can.  Repetition works.  Whatever you do, avoid giving in to begging! The minute your child knows the rules can be broken he will try to break them every time.

3. Help them earn it: Kids like to get stuff.  It’s part of the fun of being a kid.  “The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies” by Stan & Jan Berenstain is a great story about wanting everything in sight.  Riley would have every book ever written (as well as every stuffed animal ever sewn) if we let her.  In our house, we earn treats.  Sometimes it’s something very small, like a Tic Tac for being a good helper at the grocery store.  Other times, reward charts are used to help them earn a coveted item while working on something difficult. Riley has trouble falling asleep at night.  She earns stickers for falling asleep independently.  Every five stickers she earns a new book.  Earning something gives a child a sense of accomplishment and increases his self-esteem. At some point you will be thinking about allowance, but for right now help them earn some small treats.

4. Don’t fear disappointment: It’s only natural for parents to want the best for their kids, and few things are more upsetting (in the parenting preschoolers world, anyway) than watching your child sob over something disappointing.  Learning to cope with disappointment is an important life skill that begins with setting limits. Parents can use empathy to help their children regroup and move forward, and then think of ways to problem solve together.  Just the other day Riley really wanted a stuffed animal from the aquarium gift shop.  She had to have it.  I said no.  She cried.  I told her about a time that I wanted something but couldn’t have it when I was her age.  And then we agreed to put it on her Christmas list.

5. Keep a list: Sean looked at me with amusement when I suggested the Christmas list as a problem solving strategy for Riley, but it worked.  Whether it’s a holiday list, a birthday list, or an item for the “to be earned” pile, keeping a list gives the child a feeling of control.  I might not get this toy today, but that doesn’t mean it’s over. Kids need to know that they are being heard and their feelings are valued.  This is a simple way to show your child that you understand the importance of this item.  By Christmas, she will likely have moved on!

6. Teach coping skills: Life can be upsetting when you’re small.  It’s a big world out there and sometimes something as small as not earning that Tic Tac can really feel overwhelming. Help your child learn to cope with frustration and disappointment by teaching relaxation strategies and teaching him to verbalize his feelings. Just this morning Liam started to get upset over a race that didn’t go his way.  When I asked him why he looked so sad he said, “I just feel mad when Daddy goes to work because I miss him so much and I have to cry”.  He cried.  He gave Daddy a big hug.  He found his lovey and his favorite car.  He moved on.

7. Avoid comparisons: Every family is different.  At some point your child will realize that other preschoolers have seen Cars 2 (mine won’t) or know how to play video games (mine don’t).  Set your limits and stick with them.  Avoid commentary on other families.  We all make our choices for our own reasons.  The important thing is that your children know the limits in your family. Remember, kids with older siblings will be exposed to different things at an earlier age.

8. Teach charity: While I wouldn’t advocate discussing huge natural disasters or homelessness with toddlers and preschoolers (these topics can be very scary), it is important to teach them that it’s always nice to help others.  Donating or sharing old clothes and toys and contributing to environmental causes or animal shelters are all good ways to start teaching charity. Children feel good about themselves when they’ve helped others.  It’s a self-esteem booster.

Instill good manners, model appropriate behavior, help others, and help your children earn things and you might find that spoiling is a thing of the past (or never even occurs).  And stop worrying about that overflowing toy box.  Like I said, it’s not really about the stuff.

What do you think about “Generation S”?

About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)


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